Saturday, May 24, 2014

All Gone: Dementia Memoir with Recipes

Published September 27, 2012
I continue to read memoirs about caregivers supporting a family member with dementia.

I do so because memory changes affect each person uniquely.  And scientific studies of dementia don't do enough to explain the impact memory changes have on relationships and identity.

Most recently, I have read All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother with Refreshments (2012) by Alex Witchel, whose mother, Barbara, is living with vascular dementia, which may or may not have been the result of a 60 year smoking habit.

But with all other dementia memoirs, the book does not limit Barbara Witchel to a case study in dementia. She is not defined by this disease.

Instead, her daughter Witchel spends the majority of the time describing her mother's childhood, vocation, family relationships and personality.  She celebrates her mother while at the same time trying to support her in practical and emotional ways as the disease progresses.

Alex Witchel is no stranger to the craft of writing. She has a food column at The New York Times called "Feed Me."  And it is through the filter of food that she organizes her memoir.

As she shares memories of her mother before, during and after diagnosis, Witchel foregrounds the role of food in her childhood home.   She ends each chapter with a recipe or two or three.  Because their family is Jewish, there are a number of Eastern European recipes central to Jewish family traditions and holidays.

Witchel's mother worked full time as a professor of psychology.  Because of this, she was a practical cook. Consequently, some of the recipes and food memories are from Witchel's grandmothers.  Witchel describes how her own cooking functions in her home, which she shares with writer Frank Rich and his two sons (now grown and writers, too).

At times, I was frustrated because I wanted more description of how Barbara's dementia affected her day-to-day life. However, Witchel keeps that out of the spotlight. In fact, the conclusion is vague and abrupt.

Witchel describes a moving exchange between the mother and daughter about how Barbara's ceramics decorates Witchel's home but how Witchel decorates Barbara's heart.  Witchel notes, "And even though three years have passed and I have seen her as regularly as always, that was the last real conversation we had."

Each memoirist must make a choice between serving the reader and serving the people described in the memoir. In this case, Witchel chooses to protect her mother. Other works will have to guide caregivers through the stages of dementia where language wanes and physical demands become greater.

In the meantime, Witchel has left a treasure of comfort food and a rich description of her mother and their long, complex relationship.


Meeting Dementia's Challenge with a Memoir
Movies Depicting Alzheimer's Disease (and other dementias)

No comments:

Post a Comment